My friend, the Brooding Person, publishes a rather hasty epistle from LI.


“It is manifest that the sociology of knowledge is concerned with problems which have had a long prehistory. So far is this true, that the discipline has already found its first historian, Ernst Gruenwald. As he properly indicates, some of its dominant conceptions are simply more systematic and more clearly formulated restatements of views which found expression in the writings of Francis Bacon (see his discussion of the Idola), to trace them no further back. In this same tradition, marking the intellectual optimism of the Enlightenment in asmuch as it assumed that man is capable of acquiring valid knowledge concerning all problems but does not do so merely because of disturbing factors, is Voltaire’s doctrine of the priestly lie. From this view that man, who can know the truth, Is lead to conscious dissimulation by his interests (economic, the will to power, etc.), it is not a far cry to the doctrine that ideas are the outcome of profound interests which unwittingly tincture and distort every phase of man’s thought. Nietzsche starts out from this basis but adds a new facet: the fact that a judgment is false does not necessarily preclude its utility. This distinction between truth and utility finds further expression in the works of Vahihnger, Sorel, Pareto and G. Adler.” – Robert K. Merton, The Sociology of Knowledge, 1937

Back to the ever diminishing returns of Friedrich Schlegel.
I will not tolerate groaning from the back row! You there, after class, I will want the floor mopped and the erasers cleaned!…

Merton’s famous essay introduced American audiences to continental controversies that have since made themselves home on the American campus. Rather like learning not to spit tobacco juice on the carpet, generations of American freshmen and sophomores have learned, at least temporarily, that there is more to the theory of truth than George Washington knew when he cut down that cherry tree. And they have put this knowledge merrily to use, producing a world of shabby advertisements, sham celebrities, and bogus political contests.

So it goes.

The early twentieth century American sociologists were bothered by the idea of the penetrative power of democracy. That is, they were worried that the governing class in all of its fields would have to contend with a public grown so recalcitrant as to refuse to obey.

The changes wrought on this theme by the New Deal were interesting. The image of the public was re-sentimentalized, and the image of the governing class was recast as the class of experts. This is still true today, with the word elite conjuring up a haughty, sniffing set of port drinkers ordering about the servants, while “experts” are standard copy in newspapers and magazines, to be quoted slavishly and questioned only by … other experts.

However, whether it was the worry that the elites were losing their coercive power or the worry that experts were being interfered with, the confidence that the truth could be discovered and communicated was still in the zone of G. Washington’s.

Merton’s essay was part of the gradual cultural undermining of this confidence. Merton used part of the essay to examine Mannheim’s very influential Ideology and Utopia. The idea that “ideology,” or a framework of assumptions and habits, could so distort the knowledge of ‘experts’ that it would close off the vivifying shock of reality was explored by Mannheim to the extent that it begins to play the role of Descartes’ malin genie – for couldn’t ideology distort every attempt at describing reality, or acting with reasonable expectations within it? Mannheim’s answer, according to Merton, can be recognized as an ancestor of the contemporary attempt, by some post-modernists, to find a place of ‘nomadic’ thought:

“Inasmuch as Mannheim has severely delimited, if not eliminated, the realm of valid thinking, he is compelled, as were his predecessors, to justify his own observations as true and not merely ideological. This he strives to accomplish by indicating that there is an “unanchored, relatively classless stratum, the socially unattached intelligentsia”, (sozialfreischewbende Intelligenz), who can, by virtue of their detachment, transcend class perspectives and attain valid thought, which integrates the various partial points of view.”

Well, we still haven’t gotten to Schlegel. No cheering in the back, by God I will have order in this classroom! We will, I promise, soon.